Geopolitical Hotspots

Aleppo, Syria

A fire provides lighting in a bombed-out apartment building in Aleppo, Syria, December 26, 2012. Photo credit: Freedom House (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Syria’s diverse coalition of rebels is gradually closing in on Damascus. The experience in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, suggests that the rebels may face a drawn-out fight for the capital city. Government loyalists in Aleppo continue to control parts of the urban area. This week, the Israeli government is charging that the Assad government has “repeatedly” used chemical weapons over the last month. Sadly, intelligence gathering in Syria is very poor right now, arguably a casualty of austerity cuts in the West.

Aden, Yemen

The photo shows part of a poor district in the city of Aden, Yemen. An estimated 20,000 refugees inhabit this district of 50,000 people. Photo credit: European Union (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Yemen faces many challenges, including dwindling oil and water supplies, trans-national terrorist activity, and a surging secessionist movement in the South. Twenty-three years after the northern and southern regions were united, at the end of the Cold War, southerners remain unsure about the wisdom of the unification. As the photo suggests, Yemen is also located near the volatile Horn of Africa region.

South China Sea Disputes

Pictured are a United States Navy supply ship and helicopter in the tense South China Sea region. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Even while world attention has been focused on North Korea’s provocative bluster, the maritime disputes in East and Southeast Asia still simmer. The multi-state dispute over small islands in the South China Seas is very much ongoing. China has recently announced plans to send tourists to the Paracel Islands, which are disputed with Vietnam, but administered by Beijing. This area borders the larger Spratly Islands zone, parts of which are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Bucking the Global Trend: Africa’s Economic Growth

Europe’s economic funk continues. Japan’s aging society is struggling under a huge pile of public debt and slow GDP growth. Recovery in the United States is about what can be expected from a post-financial crisis expansionary cycle. And in China, Communist Party leaders are adjusting to much slower growth. In much of Africa, though, growth prospects are strong, if we can believe aid agencies such as the World Bank and USAID.

On April 15th, the Washington-based World Bank issued a periodic check-up on Africa’s near-term growth prospects. Partly fueled by high commodity prices – especially for energy resources and minerals – continental growth is forecasted to be more than five percent per year over the period 2013-2015. The optimistic forecast also highlights the impact of increased consumer spending in many countries south of the Sahara, including places like Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, and Mozambique. Indeed, many sub-Saharan states have seen above-average growth rates for more than a decade, leading to some reduction in still-high poverty rates. The diffusion of mobile phones and more predictable macro-economic conditions are key factors leading to better growth prospects.

USAID and the World Bank are probably right about continued high commodity prices. Even if some of this new African wealth is squandered through corruption, better terms of trade will lift many ordinary people out of poverty. A cautionary word is in order, though. Enclave-based development – especially if it involves oil or high-value minerals – can facilitate political instability and armed conflicts. Think diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola, numerous precious resources in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and oil in Nigeria. In short, over-reliance on mineral and energy exports can lead to so-called “rentier states” (and failed states) that do not necessarily promote broad-based human development. Careful observers of the DRC and Nigeria know about the “resource curse” all too well.

So, boosting international trade between Africa and other continents is set to grow significantly in coming years. With luck and better governance, many states will avoid the worst excesses of the resource curse.

The perennial problem of limited inter-state trade in Africa also requires urgent attention. Vast distances, colonial legacies, poor governance, and under-investment in transportation infrastructure have all contributed to high costs of trade throughout much of the continent. As USAID indicates,

Trade among African countries makes up only 10 percent of the region’s total trade volume. In East Africa, it costs 50 percent more to move freight one kilometer than it does in the United States or Europe, and in landlocked countries transport costs can be as high as 75 percent of the value of the goods they are trying to export.

Like South Asia (India and its neighbors), Africa possesses huge potential for growth in intra-regional trade and investment. This potential will only increase if Africa’s middle classes continue to swell.

The economic news out of Africa is relatively good, particularly compared to the world as a whole. Still, it is worth remembering the continent’s patchwork pattern of progress on governance, peace, and economic reforms. The overall trend is clearly positive, but recent news out of the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and the DRC reminds us that progress is geographically uneven.

North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and the End of the Cold War

Is the end near for North Korea’s repressive governing dynasty? With the recent escalation of military tensions in Northeast Asia, it does seem as though the regime led by Kim Jong-un is more brittle than ever. The DPRK’s ratcheting up of tensions with South Korea, Japan, and the United States is most likely a response to internal threats to the governing clique. What is often missed in contemporary news coverage is the increasing flow of independent information to the citizens of this “peculiar failed state.”

In the 1980s, new flows of independent information helped lead to the fall of communism in the Soviet sphere of control in Europe and the U.S.S.R. Radio broadcasts and other flows of information provided an unflattering mirror for those behind the Iron Curtain. In the case of the old Soviet bloc, political liberalization from above facilitated the emergence of a new mass consciousness and political revolution.

In the North Korean context, technological advances – including devices as simple as personal computers, digital tablets, and memory sticks – are offering ordinary citizens more and more alternatives to regime propaganda. Illegal mobile phones, too, are an important part of the new societal reality.

In the West at least, the saber-rattling of the DPRK is attracting only mild interest. Perhaps Americans and others have simply grown too accustomed to the threatening rhetoric of the North Koreans. Let us not forget, though, that Kim Jong-un still presides over a massive conventional army and nuclear warheads. If the country’s rulers deem their internal political situation sufficiently desperate, they could push the United States and its allies to test a new “counter-provocation” plan. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. and South Korea recently agreed to a ‘counter-provocation’ plan under which they would respond proportionately to a North Korean attack but avoid escalating to heavier weapons or additional targets.

If serious fighting breaks out, it may be difficult to quickly de-escalate the conflict. Let’s hope the North Korean people will figure out a stable and sure path to political revolution before Northeast Asia erupts in widespread fighting. I am not too optimistic about this prospect. What are your perspectives on the Hermit Kingdom?

Obama’s Geopolitical Pivot to the Pacific

 

Submarine near Newport News Shipyard

The Newport News Shipyard (Huntington Ingalls Industries) in Virginia is the sole manufacturer of aircraft carriers in the United States. Pictured is a Virginia-class submarine. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

On April 3rd, the new United States Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, delivered his first major policy speech. Though broad in its outlines, the address provided further confirmation of America’s shifting geopolitical strategy. The relative shift from the Atlantic world to the Pacific world pre-dates the Obama administration, but that shift is taking on a new dynamic in this age of fiscal austerity.

In the early post-Cold War period, the United States was still primarily focused on engaging with and securing Europe and neighboring regions, including the post-Soviet states. An overwhelming concentration of America’s overseas military assets were located in the world’s most important peninsula of peninsulas (and to a lesser extent in Northeast Asia). Over twenty years after the close of the Cold War, America has gradually been realigning its military and diplomatic resources toward the western Pacific Ocean. As U.S. defense and foreign affairs budgets stagnate or decline in the coming decade, the world’s lone superpower will face stark choices about how to utilize shrinking resources.

In his policy speech at the National Defense University, Secretary Hagel indicated that naval and air power would play more important roles as the United States continues to pivot to the Pacific. Some see this shifting of assets as an expedient decision in an era of war-weariness, following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Others see this as the logical outgrowth of shifting to a region (East and Southeast Asia) that is ambivalent about the large-scale presence of Army and Marine units. A reliance on naval and air power will allow the United States to leave a lighter footprint in the region.

Hagel’s speech also highlighted the soaring costs associated with America’s military personnel, particularly health care costs. Downsizing the Army and the Marine Corps would ease some of this pressure related to health spending, though the military is partly suffering the same burden that the entire nation is facing with regard to out-sized spending on health care.

From a personal perspective the continued pivot to the Pacific is meaningful for my local community, Hampton Roads, Virginia. My region is home to the world’s largest naval base (Naval Station Norfolk), Langley Air Force Base (officially part of Joint Base Langley-Eustis), and other naval facilities. As well, tens of thousands of workers in my home area build and maintain aircraft carriers, submarines, and other naval vessels. Even as the “sequester” cuts are already having some impact in my home area, the longer term prospect for the local defense economy seems less dire than some American regions with ties mainly to land forces, even though some Virginia assets will likely be re-deployed toward the West coast in the coming years. The pivot to the Pacific will significantly impact both global geopolitics and local economies in the United States.

South Korea Attacked: The Chaos of Cybersecurity

At 0500 GMT on March 20, 2013, the computer networks of major South Korean banks and television broadcasters were impacted by a likely cyberattack. According to Fox News, some of the networks were still down more than seven hours after the attack began. The mass-scale attack in South Korea is only the latest event in a wider global narrative of cyberinsecurity and chaos.

Unsurprisingly, initial suspicion has fallen on North Korea. Despite its status as a critically weak or failed state, the DPRK does have threatening military capabilities, including the potential to unleash cyberattacks. Only time will tell whether the “hermit kingdom” is responsible for the March 20 attack, which disrupted commerce in South Korea and beyond.

What is very clear, though, is that many geopolitical powers – notably China and the United States – are involved in both defensive and offensive cyber operations. I previously wrote about this brave new world of cyberwar-without-end. Even as the United States is ramping down what some previously thought to be a generational fight against Islamist terrorists, cyberwar may truly be unending.

A key reason for this dynamic is the plausible deniability that states can maintain with regard to attacks. A key reason is the pronounced role that non-state actors – whether terrorist organizations, organized crime groups, or other types of hackers – frequently play in these attacks on computer networks. Both states and non-state actors are quite active in efforts to disable or compromise critical networks. And, by definition, state-sponsored cyberattacks are covert operations. States obviously have no interest in transparency with regard to when and how they are targeting their enemies.

Even if cybersecurity is gaining more attention – both in terms of public budgets and news media coverage – not everyone agrees on the true nature of these risks. Last October, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly warned about the potential for a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Beyond the financial sector, utility networks, transportation grids, and other infrastructure may be seriously vulnerable to hackers. Sadly, the United States, China, and other states may see no viable alternative to a cyber “arms race” coupled with ongoing attacks. Welcome to the chaos of the international cybersphere.

Angola: Recovering from State Failure

Campaign Sign for Angola's Jose Eduardo Dos Santos

President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos’ MPLA won another election in 2012, despite protests from the opposition about the conduct of the poll. Photo credit: Oscar Megia (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Forbes announced last week that the eldest daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos is Africa’s first female billionaire. Though much is unknown about  Isabel Dos Santos’ climb to this elite club, her status is indicative of the opportunities and challenges facing Angola.

For much of its history since independence in 1975, this African state has been wracked by armed conflict, grinding poverty, and bad governance. In short, Angola was a failed state for much of the not-too-distant past.

In the case of this lightly settled, oil-rich country, external factors were exceedingly important in Angola’s decay. The country suffered as the site of a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States, and involved other states like Cuba and South Africa. Prior to the Cold War meddling, the Portuguese – like the Belgians elsewhere in Africa – did a poor job preparing the colony for independence.

When the Portuguese left in relative haste, the Angolans initiated a 27-year civil war that also had significant connections with the global geopolitical struggle between Moscow and Washington. These dark decades can be summed up by a long list of depressing words and phrases: refugees, landmines, official thievery, food insecurity, bombed-out bridges, and empty schoolhouses.

After the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002, Angola’s fortunes have begun to improve. First and foremost, Angola has recorded a decade of peace. Economic growth has been impressive, even if concentrated in the export-oriented energy sector. Transportation has improved within the country, helping the country’s many small-scale farmers get their goods to markets. Many refugees have returned from neighboring countries.

Now, back to Africa’s first female billionaire. Here I provide an excerpt from the Forbes story, which includes a pertinent quote from the political scientist Peter Lewis:

How did a 40-year-old woman who started out with just one restaurant come into such a vast fortune? . . . “It’s clear through documented work that the ruling party and the President’s inner circle have a lot of business interests. The source of funds and corporate governance are very murky,” Lewis explained. “The central problem in Angola is the complete lack of transparency. We can’t trace the provenance of these funds.”

Lewis is careful to state that he cannot authoritatively comment on the particulars of Isabel Dos Santos’ wealth. The people who can comment on her wealth, likely do not intend to do so.

Even so, there are indicators that Angola’s ruling party has been somewhat less corrupt in recent years. New investments have flowed into the country. And, Angola has even remade itself as an immigration destination for financial crisis-weary Portuguese.

Yet, there are limits to the gains in governance. According to Freedom House, Angola remains an authoritarian state, despite holding elections. President Dos Santos has led the country since 1979, and looks set to do so for many more. The political opposition remains weak. And given the country’s continued reliance on oil exports (with the heavy involvement of the Chinese state), this is not a good mix for broad-based development. Angola is no longer a failed state, but its foundation for the future is uncertain at best.

Geopolitical Issues for Obama’s Second Term (2013-2017)

When Time magazine selected Barack Obama as their 2012 person of the year, they noted that the re-elected president is seeking to emphasize domestic issues in his second term. While this emphasis may come about, it is highly likely that foreign affairs will occupy much of Obama’s time after his second inauguration.

Following is a quick preview of seven key geopolitical issues that will likely occupy much of Obama’s agenda. What is remarkable is how few of these issues were intensively debated in the long 2012 election campaign.

  1. America’s fiscal health
    The early January deal on tax rates is only the beginning of efforts to restore balance to America’s public finances. If the president is successful in brokering a grand bargain with Republicans, defense and foreign affairs spending will inevitably decline in a significant way. Contrary to the perceptions of many Americans, the U.S. does not spend a great deal of money on international aid and non-military foreign affairs. It is particularly the Department of Defense that would have to adjust to an earlier era of austerity.
  2. Climate change
    In 2012, candidate Obama was stunningly quiet about the ongoing climate crisis. After the big letdown at the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, world leaders committed to keep working on a comprehensive plan in South Africa in late 2011. Because of the Great Recession, and a market-driven shift to cleaner fuel sources, American greenhouse emissions are now lower than when Obama took office. Much hard work remains, and major battles loom over EPA regulations and U.S. participation in an international climate change framework.
  3. Iran
    It is quite possible that Iran will develop deployable nuclear weapons during the second Obama term. The real threat may be a chaotic nuclear arms race in the Middle East. As Ray Takeyh and others have argued, a nuclear Iran could be contained. Other consequences of a nuclear Iran may be harder to address.
  4. Political reform in China
    China is on track to become the world’s largest economy by 2020, if not several years before. That progress, and China’s growing influence around the world is directly dependent upon the country’s political stability. China’s new leaders will be severely tested over the next four years to manage political dissent and information flows.
  5. Transition in Afghanistan
    Though Obama did not start the war in Afghanistan, he took direct ownership with the surge of 30,000 additional soldiers into this failed state. The key issue is whether political reconciliation can occur with a sufficient number of the Taliban.
  6. Europe’s future
    Europe starts 2013 with some signs of hope. Notably, borrowing rates are sharply lower for most of the region’s governments. Yet, centrifugal forces in the European Union remain strong, and it is quite plausible that President Obama will have to help manage the disintegration of the EU.
  7. Illegal drugs and the Americas
    For now, immigration has receded as a defining issue in relations between the United States and its southern neighbors. It is not clear how interested Obama will be in proposing new solutions for the drug-related violence and instability confronting Latin America.